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What Would Batman Do?

I love the Batman films, at the least when in the eminently capable hands of Nolan and Burton (not so much with the Val Kilmer – bleurgh!). The prospect of the third Nolan Batman film next year reduces me to a grinning and pitiable ten-year-old fanboy. So do bear this affection in mind while I have some fun using what is, after all, a wholly fictional character as a springboard for some discussion. Batman fights crime in Gotham City, a place that seems to have an unusually high (and, frankly, just plain unusual) crime problem.  Our caped crusader has no actual super-powers but uses lots of nifty high-tech gizmos and vehicles to battle this series of criminal Jungian archetypes that plague the city. But Batman is also, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne. What can we say about the man behind the mask?

The political right would admire Wayne the billionaire. He is a “job creator” (it would be wholly our mistake to think of him simply as super-rich). We know that he gives his butler Alfred and Lucius Fox pretty good jobs, but, alas, the lore doesn’t tell us much more than that as to his job-creation record. What we do know is that Wayne is wealthy simply because his father was wealthy. In the last decade we have seen a growing body of empirical data that correlates social maladies like crime with social structure, in particular the level of economic inequality. Wayne becomes Batman because Gotham needs him – as a symbol of fear to those elements of society that seek to disrupt and do harm. But we might wonder whether Gotham City would have less crime if Wayne was not so rich and others not so poor. A truly honest super-hero billionaire might admit that he was at least a part of the problem. Wayne might make a better (if significantly less exciting) super-hero if he made less money from Wayne Industries, didn’t keep his money in off-shore accounts, abandoned his panoply of subsidiary companies designed to reduce tax, paid capital gains tax on dividends at at least the same rate as his least-paid workers do in income tax, gave his employees a decent raise from time to time, didn’t move manufacturing offshore just because it reaps a bigger profit due to lax labour and environmental regulation in less developed countries, and ensured that wherever his company operated it contributed to the community in more ways than just employing people. A truly heroic act would be for Wayne to realise that he has more than enough (even to continue pursuing his unusual hobby), and to hand over ownership to his employees wholesale and make Wayne Industries a not-for-profit co-operative. Naturally, the company could keep his name in recognition of the contribution his family made to it. But it is not clear that Wayne deserves in any way to be kept in his lifestyle by the labours of so many others without any clear contribution of his own (he does, after all, appear to commit all of his time to his hobby). Wealth is power, and with great power comes great responsibility (all apologies for my super-hero franchise crossover). The privilege of great wealth in a troubled society carries considerable obligations – to quote John Locke, those with want have a right to his “surplussage”. A true billionaire super-hero (let’s call him Buffett-man) would understand that individual action is not the only, or even the best, answer to the problems of society.

The political right would also like the way that Bruce Wayne takes a hands-on and personal approach to the problems of society. They might particularly resonate with his emphasis on fighting crime rather than preventing it – nothing beats a good old-fashioned War-On-Crime. In Bruce Wayne we have one mighty fine example of individualistic voluntarism in action, and as a bonus, with Batman on patrol we can even roll back the State a little, at least as far as paying police goes (although there always seems to be more than enough for the police to do when Batman is around… puzzling). One could never accuse Bruce Wayne of depending on the State to solve his problems. He is the quintessential man of action.

Ok, take all that as a bit tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps Conservatives wouldn’t fully appreciate his vigilante approach (but then again…). But a real world Bruce Wayne would, none the less, be greatly admired for funding charities and engaging in philanthropic activity instead of asking that the State performing that role. I have to confess to some considerable scepticism about the philanthropy of the rich. It has more than a few difficulties and contradictions. The notion of charity addressing the side-effects of the fundamental social structure is completely incoherent. The right solutions to poverty and joblessness lie in addressing that social structure, not in patching it up. Ideas such as David Cameron’s “Big Society” rely on charitable voluntarism without addressing fundamental structural problems. This is simply to ignore such problems – it is yet another thinly veiled excuse for the opting-out of the wealthiest. And for that it will fail. A society built on voluntarism can only succeed after the distributional plumbing is addressed and ensures that resources are directed toward need. Until that happens, the only people who will be able to engage in charitable voluntarism will be those least suited to identifying and addressing the problems – the wealthy.

A good amount of what counts as philanthropic charity is just orchestrated PR to create an image – why do we hear so much about the Bill Gates foundation and yet so little about what it does? Surely genuine philanthropy would be better pursued anonymously (and, then, why not through the taxation system, where at least the goals can be determined democratically?). But even if we make the implausible assumption that such cases are insignificant there is a broader problem. No matter how well intended a wealthy philanthropist may be, they are simply too far from the problems that they seek to address, and this will manifest in their choice of causes to support and the control they choose to exercise over it. If Marie Antoinette were even remotely inclined to help her starving masses she would have simply baked cakes. The needs of her people were incomprehensible to her – the empathic gap unbridgeable. The notion that society’s ills can be solved through charity is directly at odds with the Conservative defence of private property which holds that only an individual can know the nature of their own situation. It suffers from the same problem as market demand – it allocates resources on the basis of what people already have, divorcing the solution from the problem.

I don’t mean to belittle the excellent work done by many charities in existence today – it is important and necessary in the context of current society. But the most honest of them will tell you that they would prefer their charities to not be needed. And for many charitable organisations the problems that they address are the direct consequences of the social structure. Indeed, the existence of so many charities tells us much about the failings of society. The proliferation of charities to research medical conditions, or the growing number of schools that engage in fundraising to acquire necessary textbooks, is a clear and direct measure of how little free markets respond to need. As John Rawls pointed out, markets are blind to need. Surely, the best way to support causes is simply to address the causes.

So there is nothing particularly heroic about Bruce Wayne, the billionaire. The extremely wealthy are not as deserving of admiration as our societies hold. It’s about time that we stop treating them with fear and obeisance and start insisting that they match the generous benefits they have received from society by meeting their obligations. Frankly, it’s laughably easy to become incredibly rich – just start by being slightly less, but still incredibly, rich (it works well enough for Bruce Wayne). Compounding interest will take care of the rest. There is nothing particular clever about this. Pretty much anyone can do it from the right starting point. Indeed, it takes a super-human level of imbecility to go from great riches to poverty. A truly extraordinary act is to go from poverty to having substantial wealth, an infinitely more unlikely task. People do happen to do this from time to time, but we must not mistake such anomalies for genuine opportunity – it is the American dream, not the reality, not there or anywhere else, and for many it is the nightmare.

So let us raise our cups to super-heroes. Batman makes a fine fictional hero, but today I mean to praise the real heroes who do the truly super-human things: the single mother who successfully puts her children through school working two jobs to do it, the teacher that reaches his students and positively influences their lives, the nurse who works the 16 hour shift, the good folk who serve me endless amounts of excellent coffee while receiving a paltry minimum wage, and yes… the billionaire who votes against his own interests in favour of universal healthcare, public schooling, public transport, banking regulation, and wealth distribution. Gotham City is safe once again.

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  1. November 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

    I particularly enjoyed this post. Well crafted.

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